The Troubled Tourist

All year long I write about tribal conflicts. In August, when Israeli tribal customs dictate vacation, I want to get away not just from e-mail but also from news, politics, and insistent national claims. But I'm not terribly good at it.

A few years ago, we decided to splurge on taking the kids to Crete. Until then our usual getaway was a farming village in the green hills of the Galilee. But Palestinian suicide bombers were blowing up all over Israel. My wife and I decided that vacation should include time off from bombings. My wife found a bargain, a cottage in an up-country Cretan village surrounded by olive groves. The best part was that when I spotted a newspaper in the village grocery, it was written in letters I'd last seen in college math. If the headline said that the earth had swallowed Jerusalem, I wouldn't have known it.

One day we drove down to see the ruins at Knossos, the capital of the Minoan civilization nearly 4,000 years ago. At the entrance, we hired a Greek guide named Pavlos. As he led us through the excavated palace, Pavlos found evidence that every enlightened idea began among the Minoans. The low benches in one courtyard, he said, proved that it was a pre-school -- and that Minoan education followed the Montessori method. The shape of a throne showed that it was designed for a female behind -- and that the Minoans practiced equality between the sexes. Before a famous Minoan mural of dolphins, he recounted that just recently dolphins had saved some Cretan fisherman whose boat sunk. This proved, he said, that "dolphins are genetically programmed to help Minoans." The fastidious dolphins would have let lesser humans drown. In Pavlos' telling, the four-millennium gap was erased: Cretans were the very same as Minoans and therefore, the crown of creation.

If I didn't learn much about Minoans, I did realize that tour guides are the ultimate purveyors of national narrative, able to put even public-school history books to shame. Travel is so broadening, I thought. It shows you other nations' narrow-mindedness, so that when you get home you can see your own more clearly.

Still, the trip sold us on procuring peace of mind through short hops across the eastern Mediterranean. Exploring Crete in subsequent Augusts, we also saw plenty of plaques commemorating the 80-year intifada of the island?s Greeks against Ottoman rule. A plaque in a village museum described the battle of the Arkidiou monastery in 1866. Three hundred Greek fighters and 600 women and children were surrounded by 15,000 Ottoman troops. Rather than surrender, a rebel leader ignited the gunpowder store, killing almost all the Greeks, along with hundreds of Ottoman soldiers. I, too, can resonate with the romance of freedom fighting, especially when I know none of the faces of the dead. Yet I thought of suicide bombings.

No plaque that I saw commemorated the 30,000 ethnic Turks expelled from Crete in the 1923 population exchange. But then, when we spent last August in a village on the Turkish coast, we saw no memorial for the expulsion of Greeks from Turkey that year. Nor were Greeks the only people to be left out. At the ruins of the ancient port of Myra, a modern display for tourists said the city thrived until overrun by "southern tribes." That apparently referred to the medieval Arab conquest. Arabs aren't terribly welcome in Turks' story of their past. When we went for a day cruise, I mentioned to our skipper, Osman, that I knew some Turkish words from Arabic. The cold silence told me I'd bragged of Hatfield friends at a McCoy dinner.

This August, at last, we returned to the Galilee. Buses aren't blowing up this year. I kept the car radio off to avoid news. Before some wine tasting at local vineyards, we stopped at the folklore museum in Rihania, a Circassian village. The Circassians once lived in the Caucasus, in what today is southern Russia. At the museum, the village folklore expert invited us to watch a Hebrew presentation on their history -- the century-long battle by the "few and noble" against the "cruel and many" Russians, ending in the Russian conquest in 1864, followed by massacres and expulsion of almost all surviving Circassians to the Ottoman Empire. Rihania and one other village in Israel are at the far edge of their diaspora. Our host said that the Russians killed 3 million of his people. That's two to three times the number I later found in an academic study, which nonetheless says that "what happened was at least comparable to genocide."

My first thought was to wonder how many Israelis were aware of this pre-Holocaust. But I also thought of what the presentation conveys to young people of Rihania, who go to school in Hebrew, who learn the Circassian alphabet but don't really read in it, who serve in the Israeli army. Don't forget who you are, it says: brave, battered, aggrieved, unique. Isn't it strange, I thought, how tribes bequeath the memory of their defeats like the family jewels? As I said, I'm not terribly successful in getting away from it all on vacation.

One day we crossed the Jordan River and drove up into the Golan Heights to visit the museum of local archaeological finds. The displays included a replica of a tiny, quarter-million-year-old stone figurine, possibly the oldest piece of representative art ever found, from a Golan dig. From another rich dig are stone axes from three-quarters of a million years ago, when proto-humans crossed out of Africa into Asia and camped beside the Jordan River. I could imagine this as a museum whose central story is universal human origins and the miracle of the human mind. But that's not the story the place is meant to tell.

The woman who ran the museum insistently invited us to see the film shown to every tourist. It tells the story of Gamla, an ancient Jewish city atop a ridge in the Golan. After the Israeli conquest in 1967, archaeologists found the ruins. They match, stunningly, the description by the classical historian Josephus in The Wars of the Jews, his account of the doomed Jewish revolt in 66-73 C.E. against Roman rule. The Roman legions came from the north, retook the Galilee, then besieged Gamla. The film, naturally, stresses the heroism of the Jews, who fought for "the freedom of Jerusalem" and initially beat back three imperial legions. When at last the legionnaires swept into the city, Josephus records, the defenders flung their wives, their children, and themselves from the precipices to their deaths. At the film's end, it says that Gamla fell in the year 67, Jerusalem in 70, and Masada in 73, and that the Golan was "liberated" in 1967. A picture flashes of an Israeli settlement. Letters nearly as high as the screen proclaim, "Gamla Will Not Fall Again."

A simple story: Jews once lived in the region. They fought for freedom, and committed suicide rather than surrender. Therefore, Israel cannot give up this land. The intervening 1,900 years are as irrelevant as contemporary circumstances. What the story lacks in logic and political analysis, it makes up for with pain and glory.

Actually, though, the story of Gamla was not passed on for generations as national myth. Jews mostly forgot about the battle. The story had to be dug out of Josephus' book after 1967, just as the ruins were dug up. Josephus himself was a general at the start of the revolt but surrendered to the Romans when he saw it was hopeless. In 1981, the grand old man of Israeli strategists, Yehoshafat Harkabi, wrote a book called Facing Reality, in which he argued against treating the revolt against the Romans as a positive model for modern Israel. Instead, he said, it taught the lesson that "zealots may reveal dedication and idealism, but those factors are not enough to guarantee success and victory." Another lesson was that a national consensus for a policy was no proof it was wise.

Harkabi's book, explicitly, was an argument for political realism and against the passion-based nationalism of the settler movement. Obliquely, perhaps, it was also an argument against being swept away by the stories of tour guides. Pavlos, my guide at Knossos, would surely applaud the film at the Golan museum about Gamla.

As for me, I'm thinking about where to spend next August with the family. I want a place with no wireless link, no newspapers, and no history. I'm open to suggestions.

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